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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There’s more to espionage than car chases, explosions and bikinis

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman track down a Cold War traitor in John Le Carré’s spy thriller. <<© Karla Films>>© Karla Films>>

In the cinematic world of James Bond and Jason Bourne, spies are men with hard abs, steel fists and fast cars. Theirs is a world of high-octane excitement: car chases, shoot outs and loads of hand-to-hand combat. Usually there’s a pretty lady or two to dote upon them when the action slows.
    So when we see pudgy, gray-haired, bespectacled George Smiley (Gary Oldman: Harry Potter) meekly enter a room, we don’t think spy. That’s precisely what Smiley is hoping for.
    Based on the bestselling novel by real-life spy turned author John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the tense story of the middle-aged men who fought the Cold War through subterfuge and politicking.
    And not one of them drives an Aston Martin.
    The film follows Smiley, who is forced to retire from the Circus — code name for British Intelligence — with his superior, Control (John Hurt: Harry Potter) when a covert mission ends in disaster. His faithless wife is off having another affair, so Smiley is left to continue his routine of swimming, walking in the park and watching telly.
    Retirement ends when rogue spy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy: Warrior) resurfaces with a story to tell: There’s a mole at the highest levels of Circus, one who’s feeding information back to the Russians. The mole has been placed by Soviet spymaster Karla, Smiley’s nemesis, who still keeps a trophy from their last encounter.
    Control had the same suspicions, but he was forced out before he could prove it.
    Enter Smiley, with a tumbler of scotch instead of a vodka martini, to plug the leak.
    As Smiley reopens Control’s investigation off the books, he is surprised to discover the suspects are current head of Circus Percy Alleline (Toby Jones: Captain America) and his top advisors Toby Esterhase (David Dencik: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth: The King’s Speech) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds: Harry Potter). All have access to every bit of British intelligence, so Smiley must proceed with a light step.
    Recruiting faithful agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch: Sherlock) to his cause, Smiley investigates in the most practical of ways: following paper trails and meticulously interviewing witnesses.
    As he closes in on the traitor, Smiley is haunted by memories of the past and the knowledge that this mole has eluded even his notice for years.
    For a film that features no gadgets and very few discernable action sequences, Tinker Tailor is a nail-biter. Most of the suspense is due to Oldman’s performance as a quiet, calculating Smiley. This is a man so trained in the art of silent observation that he doesn’t speak until 10 minutes into the movie. Oldman is at his best here, and in spite of his still, unobtrusive presence, you can see the wheels turning rapidly in Smiley’s extraordinary head. He sees all and won’t stop until he’s found the answer to his puzzle.
    For all his brain, Smiley has little brawn, which makes every darkened room he enters and every spy he goes up against a threat. George Smiley doesn’t have a granite jaw to stop a blow. If he trusts the wrong person, he’ll be killed. That realism gives you a sense of just how dangerous and lonely the life of a spy can be.
    Tinker Tailor has no patience for those who aren’t paying attention. For instance, you’ll need Smiley-like skills to spot author John Le Carré in a Christmas party scene.
    Still, director Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) assumes that most of his audience has read the book, which can be a problem. There are some connections Alfredson assumes the audience can make, which left some of my seatmates scrambling to keep up.
    If you’re interested in the unglamorous world of Cold War espionage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a great way to discover a British spy who relied on brains instead of M and Q.
    Smiley, George Smiley.

Great Spy Thriller • R • 128 mins.